The Pale Man

By Michael Pearce

Featured Art: We Both Saw a Large Pale Light, plate 2 of 6 by Odilon Redon, 1896

Last time I saw my dad was at
the cemetery on Pilgrim Hill,
pale as a ghost but he wasn’t dead.
He stood over the grave of his grandfather,
the hero of our family.
I called out to him and waved and
he turned my way—he looked sad
and then he looked ashamed and
I felt bad for him until I understood
that his shame was directed at me.

No point in pondering his disappointment,
I know I’m a failure in his eyes and
there’s no way back to the sunshine of his pride—
the boy of great promise is long dead and here I am.
And there he was—he turned away from me
and peered right through the gravestone
and into a glorious dream of the past
where a brave man stood against the mob
and brought reason to our torn-up town.

I tried to smile because I love him so much
and because I know he’ll be the next to go—
that’s why he was there on Pilgrim Hill
and in fact as I stood there watching
he got even paler and I could see
the silhouette of a fencepost behind him,
dim x-ray of a thick dead spine.

A full moon rose in the afternoon sky.
Oh Daddy, said the scream inside my head,
oh Papa, please don’t go without giving me
your blessing, the sweet sneeze of your blessing.
And then I knew that he didn’t have it in him
and never had, that he was too faint and frail
and too scared to issue blessing or curse.
And I forgave him, I did my best to forgive him
and when I wake up on these fullmoon nights
that’s what I do, I forgive him as best I can
because now I can’t see him anymore
that’s how pale he’s gotten but I know
he’s alive and still walks this town.

Michael Pearce’s poems and stories have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Threepenny Review, Spillway, Epoch, The Yale Review, Conjunctions, and elsewhere, and have won several national prizes (New Ohio Review, Dogwood, Oberon, Bosque, and others). His collection of poems, Santa Lucia by Starlight, won the Brighthorse Prize in Poetry and will be published by Brighthorse Books in late 2020. He lives in Oakland, California, and plays saxophone in the Bay Area band Highwater Blues.

Originally appeared in NOR 20.

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